Virginia’s Statewide Public School Literacy Screening Conflict of Interest

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Virginia’s Statewide Public School Literacy Screening Conflict of Interest:  A conflict of interest exists between the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), the University of Virginia (UVA), and Dr. Marcia Invernizzi (former Professor Emeritus at UVA and the creator of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screener (PALS)) and is obstructing APS’ and Virginia’s Public ’ ability to identify all of our K-3 students who are at risk of failing to learn to read.  This obstruction continues to occur with the Virginia General Assembly’s benign neglect as evidenced by the history of 2018’s Senate Bill 865 (SB865) and 2019’s Senate Bill 1718 (SB1718).  The intention of both bills was to add a Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN) component to Virginia’s literacy screening process to improve the early identification for struggling readers who may need a reading intervention, as pass rates for Virginia Reading SOLs for 3rd graders continue to decline.   

Virginia’s Screening Assessment PALS: PALS was developed at UVA in 1997 by Dr. Marcia Invernizzi.  PALS-K and PALS 1-3 are funded by the VDOE for Virginia’s districts for all K-3 students and are currently used in 132 of Virginia’s 133 districts. Virginia’s districts also have the option to purchase PALS-Plus Screeners for their 4th-8th grade students.   

The 2010 Dyslexia Screening Study: Since Virginia’s 2010 Study for Dyslexia Screening for Kindergartners, the Virginia General Assembly and VDOE have been aware that adding a Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN) component to the PALS assessment could improve the early identification process for our students who are at-risk for reading failure, may have a reading disability such as dyslexia, or may require a reading intervention. 

Why assessing RAN is necessary: According to a study from Tufts University (p 446): “RAN tasks take only a few minutes to administer and require only modest training to administer and score. It is essential that RAN and other fluency measures be included in psychoeducational assessment batteries. For early screening for potential reading difficulties, we presented evidence from multiple longitudinal studies that show that RAN is one of the most robust early indicators of potential reading difficulties, along with phonological skills and letter name and sound knowledge. A second important reason for assessing RAN and other fluency issues is that speed and automaticity are essential components of what it means to be a good reader, yet we tend to measure reading too often only in terms of accuracy. Myriad studies have shown that one can be an accurate reader without being a fluent reader (see Breznitz 2006). Often, children who have an “invisible” speed deficit are not identified until later in school, and they may start to suffer the negative effects of having a reading difficulty, such as poorer academic performance in other subjects. For this reason, fluency measures that take into account speed and comprehension should be included in reading assessments.”

PALS, which to date does not include a RAN component, is marketed outside of Virginia: Over the last decade as this conflict of interest between the VDOE, UVA, and Dr. Marcia Invernizzi has been allowed to fester, PALS has been marketed nationwide, touting the extensive longitudinal data collection and analysis that has been possible since PALS is Virginia’s endorsed statewide literacy screener (without incorporating a RAN component).  According to the PALS website, “Since 1997, PALS has served as the universal screening tool for Virginia and is now used in all 50 states, as well as in many foreign countries, for early identification and intervention.” 

PALS data is not public: Virginia’s PALS data is not publicly available.  All PALS data for Virginia’s students, as well as any other states/districts who purchase PALS, is directly entered into the PALS website/portal and maintained through the PALS Office at UVA.

Virginia’s and Arlington Public School’s (APS) Grade 3 Reading SOLs results continue to decline: According to the newly released Virginia State Test by Test Report for SOLs results, Grade 3 Reading Pass Rates Statewide were 75% for School Year 2016-17, 72% for School Year 2017-18, and 71% for School Year 2018-19.  Likewise, for Arlington on the Division by Test Report, the Grade 3 Reading Pass Rates were 85% for School Year 2016-17, 80% for School Year 2017-18, and 78% for School Year 2018-19. 

Why reading by the end of Third Grade matters:Reading proficiently by the end of third grade can be a make-or-break benchmark in a child’s educational  development. Up until the end of third grade, most children are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade, however, they are reading to learn, using their skills to gain more information in subjects such as math and science, to solve problems, to think critically about what they are learning, and to act upon and share that knowledge in the world around them. Up to half of the printed fourth-grade curriculum is incomprehensible to students who read below that grade level, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation. And three quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school, according to researchers at Yale University.  Not surprisingly, students with relatively low literacy achievement tend to have more behavioral and social problems in subsequent grades and higher rates of retention in grade. The National Research Council asserts that “academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.”

Indeed, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2010 that “every student who does not complete high school costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.”

DDVA advocated for legislation in 2018 and 2019 to add a RAN component  to the literacy screening process and was opposed by UVA and its staff: Decoding Dyslexia Virginia (DDVA), a grassroots movement of parents focused on dyslexia awareness and legislation in Virginia, have supported proposed legislation in the 2018 and 2019 Virginia General Assembly to add a RAN component to the PALS screening process and have been met with opposition from UVA and its staff.

– 2019’s SB1718 was introduced as legislation with wording to add a RAN component to the diagnostic screening process K-3 and passed the Senate on February 4th with a 31-7 vote, but the original wording to add the RAN was consequently amended with a substitution in the House of Delegates on February 14th and passed as amended to direct the VDOE to consult with stakeholders and develop a plan to implement a pilot program to incorporate additional diagnostic tools into reading diagnostic tests used for screening students in kindergarten through grade three. The bill directs the VDOE to submit such plan to the General Assembly by December 1, 2019.

APS pilots a RAN screening tool in 8 elementary schools in 2018:  In 2018, eight APS Elementary Schools voluntarily agree to administer a RAN screener for every 1st grader in addition to the PALS screener.  Based on the RAN Pilot results, APS concluded that 15-21% of 1st graders who MET the PALS benchmarks (i.e. were NOT identified as at-risk readers) were flagged as having very poor, poor, or below average Rapid Naming skills.  These 15-21% of students are potentially at risk for having a reading disability and may require a reading intervention, but are currently NOT being flagged by PALS.

APS expands the RAN pilot: Based on the eye-opening 2018 RAN pilot findings, in the Fall 2019, twelve APS elementary schools have volunteered to utilize a RAN screener for their 1st graders, but unfortunately APS still has twelve other APS Elementary Schools who will not be participating in the RAN Pilot. 

Lack of accountability by our legislators and the VDOE: It’s understandable that the VDOE and UVA would be motivated to protect PALS’ reputation as the only acceptable (gold standard) screener used in Virginia for our K-3 students, but we need public to assess PALS’s effectiveness since the VDOE has been funding its use in Virginia’s districts since 1997 and our 3rd Grade Reading SOL results have been declining over the last 3 years.  

A potential public acknowledgement that PALS without a RAN component is under-identifying at risk students who may be at risk of having a reading disability such as dyslexia would certainly have an impact on PALS sales for 4th-8th grade in Virginia and all PALS screeners sold outside of Virginia.  This acknowledgement would certainly open Pandora’s Box about why improvements were not made to Virginia’s state-provided and endorsed literacy screener a decade ago when the Virginia General Assembly received the 2010 Study of Dyslexia Screening for Kindergartners.  While our legislators have developed amnesia or have been looking the other way, an entire decade of students have passed through our public school system without the known benefit of incorporating a RAN component into the literacy screening process because PALS, as it exists today without a RAN component, continues to be used in 132 of Virginia’s 133 districts, in all 50 States and many foreign countries. 

To date, the Virginia General Assembly has not held the VDOE and therefore UVA and/or the creator of PALS accountable for making the necessary improvements to identify more of our State’s struggling readers who may be at risk of having a reading disability such as dyslexia.  

Conclusions and Recommendations:  Considering that Virginia’s 3rd Grade Reading SOLs continue to decline and APS’ findings that 15-21% of students passed the PALS but failed the RAN, 100% of APS’s Elementary Schools (not just 12 out of 24) and all of Virginia’s Elementary Schools need to immediately include a RAN screening component in their literacy screening process to determine which students may currently be missed/not flagged as needing a reading intervention or may be at risk of having an ‘invisible’ reading disability, such as dyslexia.

If the VDOE continues to provide the PALS-K and PALS 1-3 screeners to every district, free of charge, they need to make public the results of over 20 years of PALS data.

Virginia cannot continue to use a ‘wait to fail’ approach to identify their students who may have a reading disability. The K-3 years are key to discovering which students are dyslexic and immediately need to receive evidenced-based dyslexia instruction and interventions.  

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